Vietnamese Church Leaders Testify in Washington, D.C.

Washington, USA - Three Vietnamese house church leaders submitted written testimony to the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 20, the first working day of Vietnam Prime Minister Phan Van Khai's historic visit to the United States.

The church leaders are the Rev. Tran Mai, general director of the Inter-Evangelistic Movement of Vietnam, Evangelist Truong Tri Hien of the Vietnam Mennonite Church, and the Rev. Pham Dinh Nhan of the United Gospel Outreach church.

Congressman Chris Smith, who said he convened the committee hearings to "speak truth to power," read their names along with those of several religious leaders in Vietnam who had submitted written testimony. The last Vietnamese religious leader who submitted written testimony to a U.S. government agency, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, was Father Nguyen Van Ly.

After his written testimony was read into the Commission record on February 13, 2001, Vietnamese officials sentenced him to 15 years in prison for slandering Vietnam. He was released in February this year as part of a government amnesty for the Lunar New Year, but not before he had completely changed his views. His close friends believe his mind was altered through drugs.

Nhan and Mai serve as top leaders of their respective house church organizations in Vietnam, while Hien, a close protégé of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, had to flee Vietnam following the arrest of Quang just over a year ago. He has U.N. refugee status and is awaiting asylum in the United States. Nhan and Mai also serve as chairman and vice chairman respectively of an association of house churches called the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship.

In a compelling 14-page document, Hien, who has legal training, described 77 separate actions against the Mennonite church and headquarters in District 2 of Ho Chi Minh City from June 8, 2004, to May 31, 2005. The arrest of Quang and five other church workers took place between March and June, 2004. Many of the actions against the church came after Vietnam proclaimed new, and supposedly more liberal, laws on religion in the last

few months.

Hien analyzed the actions and found they could be classified under five methods commonly employed by the communist regime against religion. First, the regime simply uses force to break up meetings. Second, authorities use administrative paperwork such as identity (ID) cards, motorbike registrations and licenses to harass, and at times, confiscate property.

For example, they will confiscate an ID card without giving the person a receipt and a week later, fine the same person for not having an ID card. Third, authorities incite the Christians' neighbors to hate them and to take "spontaneous" action against them. Fourth, the authorities try to destroy the morale of believers. For example, they have raided the church and home of Mrs. Quang and her three small children in the middle of the night, for several nights in a row, and have written up frequent charges against believers and made them wait many hours for their interrogations. Finally, the government employs the state monopoly of the media to launch scurrilous and sustained character attacks against religious leaders it deems "bad."

In the document, Hien requests that the two Vietnam Mennonite Church leaders remaining in prison be immediately released. The Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang is serving a three-year sentence and Evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach is serving a two-year sentence; both sentences were upheld at an appeal court hearing on April 12.

He also asked that the Mennonites be treated according to the new legislation on religion (which local officials have said does not apply to them) and be allowed to register their activities. Two special appeals to the prime minister on this matter have gone unanswered. In connection with this, he asked that the prime minister's office set up a special task force to handle quiet appeals coming from religious groups which cannot get redress in any other way. Hien also asked that the government create a plan and method to deal with the many officials who routinely violate the religious freedom of Vietnamese citizens and abuse them because of religion.

Mai submitted his testimony directly from Vietnam. He gave current stories of religious persecution from Hai Phong harbor to the Mekong Delta. He quoted Hmong, Kor and Hre ethic minority leaders recounting incidents of beatings, pepper spray, forced labor, confiscation of property -- including land and houses -- and imprisonment, all of which have occurred since the "liberalization" of laws and regulations on religion. He named victims and perpetrators.

Mai concluded, "The Ordinance on Religion and the Instructions signed by the Prime Minister [is] 'old wine in new skins.' The new legislation still retains the essence of oppressing religion. The government has officially announced that 'The government will only recognize a few religious denominations.'

So what does this mean for those who will not be recognized? It means plainly that these organizations will be outside the law. Today they may meet for worship, tomorrow not. Today they are released, tomorrow they may not be. How is it different for these organizations than being a fish on a chopping block? How is this different than being a fish in a pond that can be caught and killed at any time?" He warned that Western countries should not be gullible and should be very careful not to be taken in by Vietnam's "illogical and immoral religion policies."

In the committee hearings, Helen Ngo of the Vietnam Committee for Religious Freedom read a section from Nhan's testimony of how oppression and restrictions had affected his pastor father, his mother and his own family.

Congressman Smith warned Vietnam that the U.S. would be looking closely to see what happened to those who stand up to speak the truth. "This will be a test for both the U.S. and Vietnam," stated a Vietnam observer.